Writing & All The Jazz

By Vic DiGenti

As I sit here writing column number 12 for The Florida Writer, my desk is cluttered with piles of paper, my lap covered by a somnolent hank of hair and bone named Gus, while my mind searches for that perfect word like a heat-seeking missile. Typically my writing routine includes musical accompaniment of some kind from my iTunes library. Depending on my mood, the music could be anything from rock to country, but more often than not it’s jazz. Maybe that’s because in a former life I produced the Jacksonville Jazz Festival. I was a producer, not a musician, but over the years I grew to appreciate this great American art form.

Recently, I’ve been struck by the many similarities between writers and jazz musicians. Both are engaged in a lifelong learning process to master their craft. While writers learn by reading and writing constantly (as a reminder, the title for this column was lifted from science fiction author Ray Bradbury, who said “The first million words don’t count,” when explaining how writers learn their craft), jazz musicians, as do all artists, learn the basics of their craft and continually study and practice to remain at their best.

Jazz utilizes an improvisational approach similar to the writer’s search for the proper words. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis once said, “Jazz, like any language, has its own grammar and vocabulary. There’s no right or wrong, just some choices that are better than others.” Musicians learn the basics to appreciate and understand the roots of music as we must recognize and appreciate what constitutes good writing. And we do it by absorbing the works of proven craftsmen just as jazz musicians study the works of Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, and Thelonius Monk. From their initial studies, musicians learn and understand theory and harmony, graduating to study improv methods, jazz chords, blues chords, intervals, cadences. When they can control these elements and fully understand them, they refine and absorb them by constant practice.

There are natural talents in jazz, just as there are talented writers. But they all practice their craft every day. Even Satchmo had to practice. He said, “If I don’t practice for a day, I know it … for two days, the critics know it … three days, the public knows it.”

Likewise, the writer is expected to pull out the strongest verb and string together the best possible words into meaningful sentences and paragraphs to create vibrant scenes full of life.
To do this, the writer must know how all the pieces fit together. She understands plot and structure, how to create vivid characters and realistic dialogue. Like the professional musician who doesn’t have to think about the mechanics of proper breath control or the structure of the song he’s playing, once we master the elements of writing, it all flows naturally.

In a concert, the musician is part of a team, but frequently called on to solo. He stands alone with his trumpet, alto sax, or guitar and improvises around a melody that’s an integral part of the whole. He’s expected to string together the proper notes and chords that add to the structure of the tune moving it forward and building on what his fellow players have done. As writers we do the same thing, don’t we? Every sentence must move the story forward, advancing the plot.

One of the lessons we can learn from a great jazz musician like Charles Mingus is to go with the flow. We know what it feels like when words leap onto our computer screen as if by magic. Call it what you will, but when we’re in the flow we seem to have tapped into our creative muse and time stands still. Mingus was an avant-garde bass player, composer, and bandleader. He said don’t second-guess yourself when you’re improvising, don’t obsess over doing the right thing and don’t worry about what comes next. Just let the flow rush out. The same applies to our writing, finish the first draft, and clean it up during the revision process.

Jazz musicians usually play in an ensemble, a band or orchestra of some kind. And while writing is a solitary life, you don’t have to face it alone. If you’re not a member of a writing group, find one or form one. Work together to improve your writing with constructive feedback. Not all of it may be relevant, but you’ll be surprised how another pair of eyes and ears will find the discordant notes in your work.

Mingus also said to learn the rules before you break them. International thriller writer, Steve Berry has his eight rules of writing. The first one is, “There are no rules – as long as it works.” But he goes on to list other rules, including, Don’t confuse the reader. Don’t bore the reader. Don’t annoy the reader, and four others. Like Mingus and jazz, Berry’s rules remind us that we need a solid understanding of the conventions of writing. Why they work and what happens when you don’t follow them.

Before Picasso was known as the master of the Cubist style of painting, he attended art school, studied the masters and became a skilled artist. As writers, we should take our cue from Picasso, from Mingus, and from Louis Armstrong by learning the rules, understanding how all the pieces normally fit together before breaking the rules.

Even Miles Davis realized that we have to work at it before we find our own voice. He was quoted as saying, “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”

As I write this column, jazz master Jimmy Smith is wailing away on his Hammond B-3 organ on Back at the Chicken Shack. I’m amazed, as I always am, at how one person’s soaring talent can transport us to magical worlds away from our own ordinary lives. If I could only capture that in my own writing, I think. What’s their secret, I ask myself before remembering what another old philosopher named Homer Simpson once said, “Ahh, those jazz guys are just makin’ that stuff up.”

This article first appeared in The Florida Writer, the official magazine of the Florida Writers Association. My column, The First Million Words, has appeared in the magazine since 2006.

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